In Praise of Helicopters: Saving New Orleans

Within aviation circles, the number of mostly good-natured jokes thrown at helicopter pilots over the decades seem endless: "Helicopters don't fly, they're just so ugly the Earth repels them;" "A helicopter is a collection of parts in loose formation;" "Helicopters are machines that create lift by beating the air into submission."

But no one has been joking since Katrina came to the Crescent City.

We've all seen the images on TV -- especially in the first days of mass confusion and the wider embarrassment of paralyzed governmental response on the ground. There in the air over the flooded, ruined parishes of New Orleans was a cadre of young United States Coast Guard professionals -- helicopter pilots and crewmen trained to rescue fellow humans from the pitching decks of imperiled ships in the worst of conditions, laboring almost around the clock to help.

Those familiar with the true story that led to the book and the film "The Perfect Storm" are acutely aware of the immense dedication of these outstanding Americans to lifesaving, and most of us who live along coastal areas of the nation have at least glimpsed the "Coasties" flying past in one of their rotary wing machines. But seldom, if ever, have we as a people been privileged to watch such aeronautical professionalism and boundless dedication as we were in the first four days following the disaster labeled Katrina.

Hour by hour, pilots held their Dauphin or Blackhawk helicopters in rock-steady hovers as their crewmen lowered rescue baskets and raised up desperate survivors one by one. Hour by hour they worked, pausing only to refuel -- their crews at times needing to be all but ordered to sleep and comply with the crew duty limitations (which dedicated military people tend to disregard in time of crisis).

The Coast Guard raced tirelessly to save as many as possible, maintaining its superlative safety procedures to make sure the crews and rescuees made it back every time. Several days into the disaster, National Guard helicopter crews joined the desperate effort, using less well-equipped HU-1 "Hueys" and very basic "forest penetrator" seats developed for Vietnam to pull rescue crewmen hugging one or two survivors up time after time.

And by the end of the week, the skies over New Orleans were a beehive of rotary wing activity, with craft as large as the huge Skycrane or rotor Boeing Chinooks or large Sikorsky H-53s (the same type used as Marine One for presidential transport) along with most every other helicopter model in the Coast Guard, Army and Navy inventory.

Some even worked to do what seemed impossible: plug the holes in the levees. Others worked to evacuate previously abandoned survivors from the squalid mess that was the Morial Convention Center, and throughout it all, the Coast Guard continued to pull people off of imperiled roofs.

A Dream Come True


The mention of that name is very important, because the gentle and somewhat shy Russian émigré who graced the U.S. with his presence in 1919 was the genius who created the ability to hang in the sky like some mechanical angel of mercy. Sikorsky refused to leave the challenge of vertical flight alone over a long career (see an excellent biography at

Flying the first practical helicopter in 1939 (the VS-300), which led to the first military version ordered in 1943 (Sikorsky R-4), Igor Sikorsky not only designed the first helicopters, he invented the basic components necessary to permit a heavier-than-air craft to come to a stop in the air long enough to pluck an endangered life off a rooftop.

A half-century and uncounted improvements plus a handful of wartime advances have brought us to the present day in which helicopters are both ubiquitous over America (and the world), and at the same time widely taken for granted.

That, of course, is unlikely to be the case following New Orleans' fatal encounter with Hurricane Katrina. For a week it was the fling wing crews and their aircraft along with their stunning abilities to do precisely what Sikorsky had long envisioned that was the front cadre of the rescue effort. The ability for rescuers to simply come to a steady hover in the air long enough to save lives was something Sikorsky had envisioned and no other machine could do.

In fact, Sikorsky's most cherished and hoped-for use of his helicopter was lifesaving, and he would be justifiably proud of the contribution of his creation this past week -- as well as immensely proud of his young fellow American crewmen who did and are doing such an amazing job, and who are directly responsible for saving thousands of lives.

And, considering the immense logistics, maintenance, fueling and mechanical challenges to the growing fleet of rotary wing craft working in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast, the perfect safety record of the military helicopters (and with one non-fatal exception, the civilian fleet) is an amazing accolade.

The next time you spot one of those egg beaters flying by, remember the television images we've seen this week. Whether needed to pluck a broken body from the side of a highway or a stunned, dehydrated hurricane victim from a rooftop, helicopters and the men and women who operate them (and in particular, our Coast Guard crews) are some of our most important national assets.

And for each one of those early responders in Coast Guard choppers over New Orleans, the word "hero" comes to mind.